Cultural sensitivity and thought control

I occasionally tune into the teachers’ forum sponsored by the National Institute for Literacy. My comments are regularly disallowed by the moderator. Here is the latest example. My comments in italics. The subject is the need for intercultural training, something that I believe is overblown, and just another excuse for teachers and consultants to try to obtain funding for research and special programs. Most people just get along in my experience, and those who are not going to get along will likely not understand the cultural explanations, or will simply get a very stereotypical impression of people of a different culture.


I said: 

We need not be so concerned about offending sensitivities. We need to be ourselves, and accept people as they are. We will find people we get along with in all cultures, and others we do not like, on that very basis, just being ourselves. There is no need for cultural sensitivity training in my view, if we use common sense, good will and respect.


A literacy instructor on this forum said:

I would like to agree with you on the great idea of using common sense, good will and respect, but I can’t.  The fact is that your statement assumes the premise that what is common sense to you is also common sense to me and, more to the point, to people from other cultures very different from our common “Western” culture.  But common sense (beyond instinctual self-preservation) is also a cultural construct and it changes from culture to culture.  The work of cultural anthropologists like Boas and Geertz can be very helpful in illustrating just how cultural common sense can be.

Research in the area of cultural anthropology, anthropological linguistics, ethnography, sociolinguistics, cross-cultural counseling, inter-cultural and crosscultural management, education, religion, sociology, social work, and psychology have shown over and over that there is a need for cultural sensitivity and awareness because the risks of cross and inter-cultural miscommunication are hidden not necessarily in the personal face-to-face communication but in the more impersonal social and public communication arenas.


The fact is that, if you dare look beyond your personal experience, however rich it may be, there is an enormous amount of significant research showing that cultural differences do influence how people interact and how the lack of certain level of cultural awareness causes not just “gaffes” but major communication breakdowns that sometimes have tremendous consequences.  Of course we are not talking about the relation/communication between a linguist like you and his employees.


You may be a particularly gifted individual, Steve, or rather blinded by your own experience to the realities of intercultural communication where opportunities to commit gaffes are enormous.


The problem, if we accept Steve’s view that “there is no need for cultural sensitivity training,” is that when people are not aware of cultural differences the same innocent exchange can lead to frustration, embarrassment or, worse, accusations of being rude, etc.  And this is just a minor detail in cross-cultural exchanges.

I really related to your story about taking steps back to “restablish your space.”  The exact same situation happened to me except that in my exchange I was the Hispanic and my interlocutor was an Anglo woman who studied linguistics with me; instead of a church our exchange was at the English department where she and I were studying our masters degrees in linguistics.  This happened over 20 years ago and I had not learned yet about the different cultural relationship between people and their personal spaces.  I have told the story many times over years of doing cross-cultural training because that exchange, to a great degree, influenced my interest in learning the power of paralinguistic information in conveying meaning.

I replied:


 I think Hispanics should behave like Hispanics, and Anglos like Anglos. I have found that most people accept these cultural differences and even enjoy them.


Moderator said, on disallowing my comment:


I am concerned that your message below will be inflammatory as is sounds highly stereotypical: “Hispanics should behave like Hispanics and Anglos like Anglos” It is certain to generate more heat than light, and although that may  be your purpose, it is not that of the lists:  “ Comments, suggestions, references, and ideas posted to the discussion lists should serve as resources for enhancing the field’s capacity and knowledge base.”

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